My Childhood Surroundings

My Childhood Surroundings
Sand Dunes

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Time Zone- 1960 - 1962

Time Zone- 1960 -1962

As I have mentioned my parents were based in Kolkata along with my siblings – Savita, my elder sister and Narendra, my younger brother. As mentioned earlier, when my mother found that my life was not going in the right direction as far as my education was concerned, she put her foot down and announced that she will take me to Calcutta (Now called Kolkata). My whole family in village was distraught over this news; especially my boodhi dadi. She was so much attached to me that she found it extremely hard to reconcile with the fact that I will not be visible to her in the house. However it was decided that for my betterment I must be sent to Calcutta with my parents.

The Journey
This must have been my longest journey of life. The journey was completed in many parts. The first leg of the journey was to travel to Barua by a ‘Redu’ – a camel cart. Barua was my nanihal, the village of my mothers family. Therefore we would stay there for a couple of days with my ‘Nani’ (Mother’s mother) and my Mamas (Brothers of my mother). From Barua there was a train which would take us to the City of Delhi. From Delhi we would take our long journey train. The trains had three types of bogeys in those days- First Class, Second Class and Third Class. Our routine choice was Third Class being cheapest. The train journey would be so long that one felt as if he was travelling forever. Three nights were involved in the journey. There used to be three layers of bunkers. Like any child my preferred choice would be the uppermost seat. It was fun to be on top and look people all around. It also gave a sense of privacy being alone on top seat. After certain time usually not more than an hour, it would get boring, hence I would be brought down and allowed to sit near the window. Seating near the window had its own advantages and disadvantages. Advantages need not be explained but the biggest disadvantage was that suddenly a small piece of coal would fly backwards from the chimney of the engine and hit my eye. That was so painful that nobody could stop me from howling loudly for long time. The time and the tears   were the healer as the pain and irritation would automatically subside due to continuous crying  and due to a good eyewash due to tears.
The stoppage at a station was another charmer. I would look outside the window for something of my interest which I could demand from my parents. Small toys and  snacks were the standard objects of desire. Many a times I would get my demanded stuff, but sometimes sternly refused too! That was okay as a bargain. The neighbors in the train used to get so friendly that by the time one reached his destination, they would become inseparable buddies. Being a small child, I would be the object of affection to strengthen the new found bonding.
My first train journey was not very eventful, but my return journey after quite some time with my mother and a family friend from village- Rambilas uncle involved one major event to be recalled now. In that journey, we were given the seats near the gate of the bogey. The lowest tier was given to my mother, the middle one to Rambilas uncle and as usual I insisted and got the uppermost berth for myself. The gate was closed at night. Sometime during night I moved on my berth and fell down right from top on the floor. My mother got up immediately hearing the thud. She was shocked to find me on the floor. What added to her agony was that she found that somebody had opened the door during night and left it open. She picked me from the floor and took me in her arm. Interestingly she cried a lot and I did not. I was too sleepy to bother about the incident. The comfort given by my mother made me sleep again.

My arrival at Howrah Station of Calcutta
My first train journey got over at Howrah station of Calcutta. The place was maddening. People running around on platforms! Coolies wearing red Kurtas as top and white dhotis below waist were looking for loads to carry. Some younger coolies were wearing white pajamas. These coolies had tremendous weight lifting capacity. They would load two steel trunks on their head supporting the load with one hand and carry a small bag in another hand which was free. Family would walk behind the coolie. Inspite of so much load on his body, it was difficult to walk along with the coolie. Generally one elder fellow would walk at the pace of the coolie. The unexplained fear always was the fear of losing the luggage along with the coolie. The women and children would walk behind at a convenient speed. One common scene would be a bargain between coolie and the luggage owners. It was customary for coolies to ask for more in anticipation of a bargain from the other party and a bargain from the party assuming that the coolie of his own will ask for more. Generally disputes got solved easily as both parties knew where to settle. Later on Railway authorities fixed rates for coolies. But coolies were never happy with those rates. The practice changed. In the post fixed rate era, a coolie would assess the total load and give his quote. And the same bargaining process will resume and which will get settled at a price slightly higher than the fixed rates. In this process at least there was a guiding rate available.
At the hindsight when I observe, I find that Howrah station was one such unique railway station in India, which was drive through. There was a road built for cars to enter inside the station building. There was a booth just before entry gate where a car will stop and driver will buy a special platform ticket meant for a car. No separate ticket was required for the occupants of the car. Car will enter the station and could park on either side of the road. Parallel to the road were rail platforms. People alighting from a train which arrived just next to the road next to its platform had to walk  very little to reach their car. The exit was on a bridge which was built over rail lines just like the bridges made on most of the stations for crossing from one platform to another for people.
However this car entry was for information purpose only here, as we did not have any car. Our usual mode of going home would be a taxi, a yellow and black taxi. Yellow the top and black body below side glasses. All taxis used to be the massive rounded body Ambassador cars. The fact is that there used to be only two types of cars in India. Ambassador which was manufactured in Kolkata by Hindustan Motors and Fiat, which was produced by Premier Motors in Mumbai. Fiat was comparatively a smaller but more stylish car. Due to their location of manufacturing the population was also divided between east and west of India. There were very few fiats visible in Kolkata.
Coming back to my entry into Kolkata with my parents, I was looking out of taxi window everything with great interest. It was a complete culture shock for me. The shock started with our entry into a massive steel structure called Howrah Bridge. It was an unbelievable thing for me. A huge bridge spanning over river Hoogly was like a huge highway, with cars, rickshaws and even trams crossing through it. There were even walkways on either sides of the bridge. Boats were visible floating in the river. The journey through the airy bridge culminated into a very crowded road called Harrison Road. It was also called Mahatma Gandhi Road.
The names of the roads is a very interesting think about Kolkata. Almost every road or lane has two names. One name after some English ruler or officer of English Rule and second name given by Indian Government post independence. The best part is that both names are in use even now. In many a cases the English name is more known than the Indian name. For example Dalhousie Square was renamed as Binoy Badal Dinesh Bagh, which was never popular until it was reduced to BBD Bagh by mini bus operators. We can make a huge list of streets, lanes and squares named after English peoples and later changed.
Through the hustle and bustle of Harrison Road our taxi took a turn into a small lane called Amartalla Street. It was a narrow road with roads made of black stone blocks. On both side of the road there were shops of textile, hosiery and food stuff. There was a police station on the road. This was always a centre of curiosity for me in my childhood days. I always wondered what all would be inside this building.

No. 8, Amartalla Street
After crossing the police station, may be few minutes later the taxi was made to stop in front of a gate of a high rise building. The number written outside the building on one pillar was no. 8. Just inside the entrance of the building, there was a small shop selling biscuits, lozenges, lollipops and such similar stuff. There used to be no Cadbury or similar chocolate in those days. This shop caught my fancy and remained my centre of interest for the tears to come. We started climbing the staircase. We went on climbing fisrt floor…..second floor…….third floor……..fourth……………. I asked my mother- how much more? Please carry me. She consoled just one more floor, beta. So we reached fifth floor. On fifth floor we took a left turn into the large corridor. There were rooms on either side of the corridor. One room for one family ! Mainly Gujaratis! When they saw my mother coming with her children, they came out to greet her. They showed lot of interest in me as I was never introduced to them before. Oblivious to my surrounding I was studying this new outfit called Calcutta city which was so very different from my village.

Finally we reached the end of that corridor which culminated into an open space called verandah. Opening into the verandah was a room which was meant to be my house for several years. The room was about 15 feet by 12 feet roughly. A part of the verandah outside was covered with a temporary shed of tin. This shed served as our kitchen. The room and the tin shed formed the shape of English letter L on one side.This facility if verandah was an exclusive feature of our room, hence the rent of our room was Rs. 85 per month in comparison to Rs. 80 of other rooms on the floor. The reverse image of the L was on the other side of the verandah was another room and shed. That part was occupied by one elderly gentleman Malchand Sethia and his wife. They had a son Sampat but who was barely visible to us. Perhaps he was living in some other city and used to visit his parents from time to time.
The rooms in the corridor belonged to different families, mostly Gujratis. Some of the names which I recall are Bimlaben, Rewaben,Jimbo, Maanki etc. I knew the names of the ladies only as they were frequently addressed by my mother while talking. Gents of the family were not known to me. There was no place for play for children in that building. We were lucky to have the attached verandah with our room. That served as the play ground for me and my siblings. We hardly had much interaction with the children in neighborhood for the simple reason that none of them were in our age group. Visiting other floors of the building was prohibited for us, hence had no exposure.
The toilet facility of the entire population of each floor was housed together in a room. I remember there were about 3 or 4 indian style commodes. Kept outside the toilet cabins was a steel drum which was kept full of water. There were several tumblers available for personal use for washing and cleaning. After the process hands would be washed with a particular type of clay which was collected by clay sellers from the banks of Hoogly. The clay sellers used to move around door to door hawking to sell mud like clay. He would carry the clay in two cane baskets, one large one and another small one. The small one would be settled on top of the large one. The two baskets would contain two different kind of clays. One was known as Chikni matti (Smooth Clay) and the other one was Balui Mitti (Sand Clay) matti. Both had different qualities. The vendor would carry the two baskets on his head.  There used to be two fixed rates for the large and small basket. I remember the small one was for 5 paise and the large one was for 10 paise. The basket was not for sale- only the content could be purchased and emptied in a tin container kept by every household for the purpose of hand wash. What sounds so repulsive and disgusting experience was easily acceptable to everyone in that building. Why those days, I am sure even today there are majority of slums and such buildings which use such community toilet facilities. Bathing was done in our tin shed on our verandah.

The Sigri
Mother used to cook for all of us. I remember she used to lit a sigri for fire for cooking. The sigri was made out of a tin bucket. There was a small window in the lower part of the bucket. On the upper part there was a grill made of this iron bars. The inside walls of the bucket were layered with thick quote of muds. I don’t remember how was the mud bonded to the wall but it remained stuck there. Periodically fresh mud was applied to the walls. This dried mud wall worked as the insulator of heat from within. The technology for litting this sigri was also interesting. A small container carrying some dried mud was the ignition device. On top of the mud bed ,thick layer of wood dust was spread. Kerosene oil was poured on this layer above mud bed and match was struck to it. The burning kerosene along with the container was slid inside the ,lower window of the sigri.The sigri used to be filled with coal and wood , which would catch fire from the flames of burning kerosene. Every household knew two kinds of coals – Patthar Koyla and Kaath koyla. Patthar means rock and Kaath means wood and the common word Koyla means Coal. Perhaps the origin of the names has been based on the source. Patthar Koyla must have been dug out of coal mines below the earth and Kaath Koyla must be the burnt jungles and trees. A Kaath koyla would catch fire easily but would burn out in a short time whereas a Patthar Koyla would ignite at a slow speed but would remain lit for quite a long time. Generally a combination was tried for fast ignition and lasting fire. I remember as a child I was quite interested in the activities of lighting the sigri until once I burnt my hand trying out things my mother used to do.
For fast needs a stove used to be handy. The stove was filled with kerosene oil. The burner was lighted with a match. There was a plunger kind of device which was pushed and pulled forcefully to develop some kind of gas pressure inside the stove. After few minutes of exercise a beautiful blue flame with a sharpness would be development. This device was good for making tea or for reheating some stuff.

The Green Chilly Story
Mother was always very fond of eating small bites of green chilly along with food. Out of three of us – the siblings, Narendra had acquired this fancy for green chilly. Savita and I were always scared of it. Narendra knew of our fear. One evening he teased us- both of you are so cowards, see how I eat a full green chilly. And to the greatest surprise to us he kept a full green chilly in his mouth and swallowed it. Our first reaction was of surprise mixed with admiration. However I challenged him. I said- you just swallowed it, if you have guts chew one properly ! And Narendra fell in the trap. He bravely accepted the challenge and selected a small green chilly and started chewing it. He kept his brave front intact for few seconds but then chilly started the fire in his mouth. He started yelling and howling. His eyes were bursting with tears. Our reaction started with amusement and finally got converted into an extremely worried state. We tried to help him with water and sugar. Finally mother rushed out and tried to help Narendra. Innocence - thy name is Childhood !

The Sethias
I have already mentioned that our immediate neighbours were an elderly couple with a family name as Sethia. I, as a small child, was quite pampered by the lady. She in fact looked much older due to the creases in her skin and a frail body. She had a very different kind of Sigri. It looked like an Igloo.A cast iron body with an extended tubular shape for introducing fire. This sigri was small and good enough for cooking for a short time as it could accommodate very small quantity of coal. In fact she needed to cook very small quantity as both the members had a very little appetite. There was no question of varities as one vegetable and may be 4 small chapattis was all about their requirement. Some times she would make a porridge kind of stuff called ‘Laapsi’. The main difference was that it used to be sweet. Whenever she would make Laapsi she would call me to her kitchen to eat some. In fact I loved their kind of food. Her chapattis used to be much smaller, thinner and undercooked than the rotis made by mother. A generous amount of ‘ghee’ would be applied on top of the chapattis . I loved those small undercooked bread.

My First City School
In fact Calcutta was more of a disappointment to me when I compared the city to my village Sherda. Everything seemed to have shrunk. The narrow lane of Amartalla Street was nothing in comparison to the open field of my village. My playground – the verandah attached to our house was almost no place in comparison to the dusty front of our Bheli in Sherda. The Bheli itself looked so huge in comparison to the tiny room for the whole family. The biggest shock was yet to come.
Pitaji (my father) appointed a teacher to teach myself and Savita, my elder sister. The teacher was a typical school master wearing a dhoti and a kurta. His hairs were laced with oil and neatly parted on one side.While walking he used to keep the free end of his dhoti pushed in the pocket of his kurta. He belonged to Uttar Pradesh.His name was Tej bahadur. I remember an incident. Later in life, when we had grown up and he was not good enough to teach us in higher classes he discontinued coming to our house. Several years later, when we had lost our contact with him completely, someone told my mother that Tej bahadur was in his village and was extremely ill. He also told that he had no money so no treatment was being done. Hearing this mother became very worried and disturbed about him. She told pitaji that we should find out about him and help him. Pitaji found out his village address written somewhere in old diaries. He sent Rs. Fifty by money order to him to his village address. Then we forgot all about that incident. Several months later Tej bahadur came to our house. He was looking very frail and thin. He thanked my mother with folded hands and watery eyed that his life could be saved with the money sent by her. That was perhaps my one major exposure to social service and the satisfaction arrived out of that.
Coming back to my beginning of education in Calcutta, Tej Bahadur  got us admitted in a school in a narrow and dirty lane called Shiv Thakur Gali. The school was no fun at all. It was like poor people’s Montessori school.No games, no play and in fact no space. Just a room into which small children were made to sit! When I remembered my school at village, I felt as if I was in a mouse trap.
A teacher would keep on talking by writing something on a black board. He used to carry a ruler in his hand, which was enough to frighten young folks in the classroom.Everything went bouncer on my head whatever he said. Some group recitation of poems and paharas (tables) was the only form of some education. Saturdays were fun. There used to be some pooja in school and students were given a fistful of makhanas (Small sugar balls of the size of peas) . This was the most awaited treat for children for the whole week. Tej Bahadur was given dual responsibility by Pitaji. He would come home in the morning and will take Savita and myself along with him to school. Such schools were called Guru Paathshala ( Teachers Schools) in Kolkata. He would hold our hands by either of his hand and would start the walk towards school. The journey was nearly 20 minutes through the narrow and crowded lanes. The walk was though very boring, however I used to enjoy when we crossed the small shops which manufactured sweets made of Pethas (Jackfruits). The boiling syrup, the cut pieces of Petha under wash – all that seemed very interesting to watch. After the school was over after about 4 hours, he would bring us back home holding our tiny hands. At home he would come back after a break of about an hour than teach us for about one hour. This teaching session was very boring. I could never concentrate in his talks. I would leave his class at least twice every day; once for drinking water and again for going to the toilet. At times he would get irritated with my routine excuses; however he could not refuse me these two privileges.

My Favourite School
We must have gone to this school for at least 3 months, when my mother realized that such schools were useless as far as education was concerned. She had acquired some knowledge about some good schools. She insisted that we be shifted to some other proper school. A school named Mahadevi Birla Shishu Vihaar, located at Iron Side Road in Ballygunge area was approached. The school granted us admission. It was a dream school for me. All play and fun ! Lots of toys, swings, painting classes, building blocks etc. The biggest attraction was a small toy train in the compound. I fell in love with this new school. As the location was very far from our house at Amartalla Street we were to travel by school bus. Pitaji would bring us to the Brabourne Road by walk , where the bus would pick us. Its time was always erratic due to traffic jams. For the first time we were given small tiffin carriers as it was not possible to carry lunch so far later. By the time we would come home it was nearly 8 hours. On this ground the school was rejected by my parents within few days. I was happy to get rid of this long ordeal but I missed the school activities always later in my life.

The First Serious School
My mamaji ( uncle- brother of my mother) got me admitted in a school called Digambar Jain Vidyalaya, which was located near Satyanarayan park. This school was located close to Amartala Street, may be just 7-8 minutes walk from our house; hence it suited all of us. By this time my younger brother Narendra was also fit to join the school. So both of us were admitted in that school. My sister Savita was also in the same school but the girls’ school had different timings. This school was much stricter about its systems and education.
Being a Jain school the daily morning prayer consisted of four main jain shlokas-
Namo Arihantanam /Namo Siddanam /Namo Ayarianam /Namo Uvajjhayanam / Namo Loe Savva Sahunam
There was a group chanting of these mantras by all students. No one understood what these shlokas mean, however with practice everyone could shout in unison.
I remember my maths teacher from this school. Everyone called him Sharmaji. He had chicken pox marks on his face, that made him look more dreadful. I remember when I was in class 2, he was trying to make us cram the tables. Tables I was familiar as I had learnt to remember those in rhytmic manner. What I had learnt from my previous schools and my teacher Tej Bahadur was tables upto 5. Here the gentleman was teaching us the most difficult tables of the world. Tables of ½ , ¾ , 1 ¼  ,1 ½ ……… etc. I don’t think even a graduate of present day will be able to tell the table of these fractions out of memory. There was no option but to get the punishment for not remembering these tables. The consolation was that the majority of the students were like me. Pitaji told me that these tables were regular requirement in their schooling days. At the hindsight when I think about those tables, I realize the great utility of these tables. In those times when there was no calculators, slide rules, log books etc. the human mind was expected to do all difficult calculations. My father, being a businessman, could work out numbers like interest of a certain sum for a certain period for an interest rate of ¾ % per month by few minutes’ mental calculation. Somehow I could not learn those tables.

My First Ever Suit
The title sounds quite misfit in the middle of these circumstances. In fact the actual happening was also quite out of place in those days. As a child I had no idea where my clothes were made from or purchased from. In fact my clothes was just not my subject. Whatever mother would make me wear was fine. One afternoon, when I returned from school, I found my mamaji Vijay Kumar, the youngest brother of my mother was at home. Mother told me that we are going for some shopping with Mamaji. I was thrilled. Mamaji took us to a tailoring shop called ‘Yaks’ at New Market. It was a mens tailoring shop. The owner was a sindhi gentleman. It seemed that Mamaji was quite friendly with the owner of the shop. He asked him to measure me for a suit. A real suit in black ! I don’t exactly remember the occasion, but I faintly recall that it was meant to be worn in Mamaji’s wedding.

In few days the suit was ready. Once we collected that Mamaji got me a tie. The tie was not like a standard tie. It was a dummy tie with an elastic band to hold it below the collar. I insisted in having a tie like what my Mamaji used to wear with two tails dangling. The shopowner had a tought time convincing me that such ties are not available for kids. I still have a nice photograph of mine wearing the at suit and standing at the gate of a bogey of a train. 

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